Wherein: Tislar Brings a Gift; Svan Gets Through; Sillith Dreams
By lantern, Liny looked at the boat, which was hidden beautifully within a cover of brush laid to create the illusion of a bracken snarl. It was dark, and Liny wondered if it was as well hidden in the daylight. He thought of his uncle and Hostt Bouck finding it and felt a nervous shiver pass over him. Removing the branches, Tislar and Liny uncovered a low barge, rocking dully in the water. It was the most curious boat Liny had ever seen. Almost eight feet wide across, it bore a planked, locked cover, and at the bow the hull was cut low, just above the water’s edge. The boat was heavy with something.
Tislar watched his face. “Managed this barge myself.”
“That’s what it’s called. For carrying cargo, though I came pretty far this time.”
“What’s in it?”
Tislar answered by unlatching the rusty metal lock. His long black hair swung, and his eye gleamed green when he turned his head and looked back over his shoulder. He winked and asked, “One guess?”
Liny shook his head, no.
Tislar opened the plank cover with a loud wrench. They looked over their shoulders into the woods that separated them from the settler’s clearing. Nothing moved. They turned back and grinned at each other. Liny lifted the lantern and the sphere of yellow light swung across the dark boat out onto the water, carving a momentary line of small green waves into the night black. Under the cover, there was sawdust. Tislar sank his fingers into it and held up a trickling handful.
He laughed at Liny’s disappointed face, saying, “Don’t despair, boy.” He reached in through the doors, thrust his hands deep and began scooping great handfuls aside. As the layers thinned, Liny saw a wetness spread in it.
Tislar continued to dig, his hair swinging, the boat rocking under him as he pushed the layers aside. Under Tislar’s hands, a cloud of milk gray steam snaked from the hold into the lantern’s light. Tislar pointed down to a space, which appeared to Liny to be a shiny black hole in the sawdust. Looking closer, nothing, a glistening black. He bent even closer, the yellow lamplight swinging over his own knees, the wood of the boat, Tislar’s worn boots, the water, and down to the black hole, a kind of endlessness shining back at him there. It looked as though Tislar carried the center of the world in his barge. The blackness gleamed and Liny crouched lower. Again, the lamp swung: boots, water, hole in the world.
Wiping his forehead with a sawdust-coated hand, Tislar said, worried, “We’ve got to dig a cool place, soon, or my gift to you will vanish.”
He reached out for the lantern, switched it to his left hand, shook his hair back, and laughing, gestured for Liny to reach in. Liny reached down and put his hand tentatively into the dark, shining gap. He jerked away, arms flailing. Tislar caught him by the arm, and the boat rocked splashily against the shore.
“Ice!” Liny cried, “in the middle of summer!”
“Long story, Liny Leggith. Longer than we have time for. Probably lost a month’s worth already. Won’t have any if we wait.” Liny knelt to the edge of the plank cover and put both hands in on the wet, steaming ice. He laughed. He threw back his head and laughed as loud as he wanted. He didn’t care about the others. He didn’t care if they could hear him, if he and Tislar were discovered. The cold shock of the ice was a delight, the hole in the world was a delight, Tislar was a delight, and Liny Leggith had lived a life of little delight since coming to the island. He rolled onto the broad boat cover, and let the boat rock him, laughing, until the sounds he made were quiet, relieved, and his hands and face were wet.
Svan lay in bed, both hands clenched on her flat belly. It felt as though giant claws tore inside her, scratching to get out. She was lonely, terribly lonely, but when she saw Lutto or Mithic’s face, she rose to such peaks of agitation that she could not control herself. One day, she hurled the tea pitcher at the girl and was stuck staring at tea dripping down the walls, staining the coverlet, puddling the floor, long after the girl’s dark head had vanished through the doorway.
After that, it had been hours, maybe days, since anyone had come. She was drowning in her own perspiration, and she must have vomited, because a rank stench hummed and buzzed in her nostrils. She could not sleep, sweating, her body occasionally blossoming a new set of goosebumps as she stared out at the dark. Images rolled before her eyes, broken and fragmented: her father’s warm hand on her head; her brother under a tree with his arm in a sling; her mother leaving a room; her mother leaving another room; her mother leaving again.
She missed the blue light, the haze that milk had lent to her. She was being burnt from the eyes inward, everything in such harsh, brutal light, everything sharp-edged and comfortless.
She flung her body in the bed, trying to find a comfortable place, weeping, screaming at the claws in her belly, at the aches, the pricking in her joints, thorns, needles. She hovered over the chamber pot as though her very flesh were turning to liquid. Finally, Mithic appeared, took in the room with a look of disgust and left again without a word.
Then Ethete attived, good Ethete, with a cool cloth, bathing Svan’s aching arms, a wet cloth that felt like a gentle light, so small and yet such a relief. While Ethete cleaned the room, Svan watched her greedily, grateful not to be alone with her suffering. Ethete made her get up and changed the bedding while Svan wept for the pain as she sat in the chair. Svan returned to the dry, blissfully dry, bed, content for an instant only before the cramps returned, the sweating. Ethete was at her side with a cup of hot broth, and Svan’s lips touching the cup felt like knives, and she shuddered. When she spilled the first cup, and Ethete cleaned it up, the kind woman scolded her to be careful, and made her sip every so often. Then Ethete was gone. More hours of loneliness, the darkness of night like a hand over her mouth, the breathing so difficult, the points of her body shredded with ache. Svan hoped she would die, come into true darkness. Ethete showed up every morning after that, offering sips of broth and water and crumbs of biscuits that Svan could barely keep down. After what seemed a lifetime of agony, Svan woke one day, knowing that she had truly slept, and the pain in her body subsided so that it only hurt when she moved.
Ethete beamed at Svan’s report of sleep and went about her cleaning. Svan lay quiet, shamed beyond speaking. She was well enough to realize that Ethete already had a houseful of children to tend, and Svan had become one more. She began to eat and drink more daily, gaining strength, though she remained quiet, broken-hearted, too empty to speak.
One morning she asked Ethete in a cracked voice, “What good am I to anyone? What will I do with myself?”
“We’ve all had to figure out how to be useful and happy here. It’s your turn to do so, is all, and you will be just fine,” Ethete said, patting Svan’s thin hand.
Finally, Mithic visited, touching things in her room, walking around it, never asking how she felt. Svan watched him and felt her heart close against his selfishness. She resolved she would not be like him, no matter what.
She rose the next morning with energy, the likes of which she’d not known in years. She walked toward the ocean, thinking of baptism, of the fire dark she’d passed through. She determined to remake herself. She followed the sandy path through the pines, into the dunes and tall grasses, until the great rolling breast of the ocean lay before her, a flickering gold and blue band of beckoning. She removed her boots, left them on the beach, and stepped barefoot into the fingers of the shallows. The water curled around her feet and legs, foamed, and she sank to her knees, letting the current take what was no longer wanted from her, letting it bring new water to her, and she knelt there, sinking into the sand, being washed, until she felt a new self ready to speak on her behalf.
Liny remembered the house in the lowland. He remembered sleeping there, the hearth burning down into its slow crackle, sometimes his parent’s voices, but mostly, the sound of Insnar’s restless sleep. Liny learned to sleep to the sound of his brother’s sighs, rustles, the flinging of legs and arms. He described it for Tislar, the low ceilings, the darkness of the walls and smoky air, the family. After he told this, he fell silent. Tislar was a patient listener and did not interrupt. They sit by the crackling of a fire. Liny continued his thought in silence. Strangely, it was Insnar’s restlessness he missed most, since they’d begun to live separately, in small branch shelters they built for themselves. Liny felt a pang of sharp and sudden sorrow, when he realized that he missed the sound of his brother’s agitation, the sound that was the mark of his brother’s life.
Maynard and Paramon sat one morning on the steps of Maynard’s porch. Sillith played with the Sullick children, all of them in the golden light of the clearing. Maynard’s youngest toddled over, and Maynard caught her as she moved to vanish around the corner of the house. Maynard kissed her on her head and turned her back in the direction of the other children.
Paramon said, “What a bright day. It will be hot, yes?”
“A good day.”
“Yes, I’m headed for it. Coming?”
“No. I told Onan I’d come with him. Still trying to get the seine net working right.” Paramon laughed. “I didn’t know I was so clumsy until I tried hauling that long net in, hand over hand.”
They sat in silence for a while. Ethete came out and asked them if they wanted some tea. Neither man accepted.
Maynard said, “I had the strangest craving last night.”
They both laughed. “Wine,” Paramon said.
“Don’t mention beef.”
“There’s fish, though.”
“Plenty of fish.” They laughed again, and Maynard said, “Shrimp and oysters.”
“Beef. ” They sat watching their children and Paramon said, “Most of them haven’t ever tasted beef.” Maynard raised his eyebrows and they looked at the children, considering.
Paramon said, “Leena used to make wine and beef stew. Onions, carrots. So rich it made your heart ache.”
Maynard looked at Paramon in surprise. It was the first time Paramon had mentioned his wife to him since her death. And to have her mentioned so casually, Maynard stiffened, holding still so as not to disturb the memory. He waited for Paramon to continue.
“And it wasn’t that it was just her recipe. She actually made it herself. She didn’t get Henore to make it. She did it with her own hands. She said it tasted more of love that way. She went to the butcher and got the best meat they had. She floured the beef. She sliced the carrots. She said to honor love, one must go to every extreme. That’s what she said, Maynard, that’s what my wife said to me.” And for the first time since Leena’s death, Paramon let his grief be seen.
Maynard sat beside him, listening, and after a while, he reached over and touched his friend’s back. It surprised him, Paramon’s back, how small it was, how wiry and alive. Maynard thought, no matter how much you think you know a person, they will always have more for you to know. They went on sitting in the sun, mercifully undisturbed, their children playing quietly, while Paramon unravelled the first threads of his sorrow.
Throughout her childhood, Sillith endured a repetitive dream. When the dream began, she was on the island hill. She was standing there, up high, looking over the island, a different person, and she saw people everywhere, scores and scores of people. Walking, eating, standing. Some of them were pointing and screaming. She turned and saw that an enormous fish was eating the island. She could see how massive it was, a huge black and white fish, jaws open, ravenous, coming at the island again and again, taking a chunk of it away each time.
When she woke from these dreams, she was often trembling. She called down, “Paramon? Paramon?” And he would wake, murmur, come to the ladder of the loft, looking up.
“Sillith? Are you all right?”
She looked down at him, only his nightshirt faintly visible in the dark. “I was dreaming.”
“Ah, good. Dreaming is the sign of a live mind,” her father said, sleepily. “If you go back to sleep, it will be a different dream. Dream this time of sky. Or did you already?”
“Not sky,” said Sillith. “Again, the huge fish.”
“Good then,” her father said, “this time, sky.”